When a loan deal is turned into a permanent one, that lad must be doing something right. Luke Freeman is a good case in point. After all, one of the joys of bringing someone in on loan is that you can send them back. Sometimes, you simply can’t wait for that to happen. But others you don’t want to see leave. But there are also times where we’ve been driven to part with our club’s hard-earned wedge to make sure those stand-out loan stars never* leave. You don’t see it often – but Luke Freeman is very much one of those players.
(*Obviously they leave eventually. We mean they just don’t go back to their previous club)
Luke Freeman: Why Is He A Cult Classic?
Going into the 2011-2 season, we had a really close-knit group of players at the Lamex; a squad that delivered two straight promotions and catapulted us into League One. It isn’t a problem as such. But it does perhaps make it difficult for new lads to come in – especially if you’re only here for a limited period of time. It didn’t seem to trouble Freeman, however. From Arsenal, boss Graham Westley brought him in; the wing wizadry
giving us our high-flying team that extra element. And he settled in with aplomb.
To add some more context, Freeman arrived just a few days before his Arsenal colleague Chuks Aneke. While Aneke struggled to nail down a place in our midfield with two starting appearances and four sub outings, Freeman started almost every game during that initial loan period. He also bagged his first goal for us in that memorable 6-1 Boxing Day win at Colchester United. But all things must pass – and our 1-0 FA Cup win at Reading was the final game of his loan spell. It also turned out to be GW’s last match in charge too.
Freeman’s On Fire…
To soften the huge blow of GW’s departure, Boro’ pulled a rabbit out of the hat; convincing the Gunners to part with Freeman’s services for good. And he marked the start of the next chapter in his fledgling career in style; scoring twice as we put five past Rochdale in Mark Roberts‘ first game as caretaker boss. And you’ll know full well that Robbo was – we think – the last loanee to sign on full-time at Boro’ before Freeman did so.
By the end of that campaign, Freeman had turned out 32 times – 28 from the first minute. That’s more than Stacy Long, Chris Beardsley, and John Mousinho. To be fair, though, it’s not like any of the above had the ability to effortlessly glide past players. You could almost argue that he was the opposite of what we’d come to expect from a GW-style player. That didn’t stop the ex-Gunner fitting in, however; a breath of fresh air that lit up our left wing.
He made mugs of many League One defences too, which is the main thing.
In his first full season at the Lamex, it’s being kind to suggest that Gary Smith didn’t make the most of Freeman’s talents. He made 29 starts, which isn’t too shabby. But a further 14 sub outings makes it seem as if Smiffy didn’t know how best to use him. If he couldn’t put his finger on why results had turned sour, then it’s no surprise that he didn’t know that we had a player who needed to let his creative freedom run free.
Luke Freeman: Epilogue
GW came back towards the end of the 2012-3 season. But he couldn’t stop the rot as we ultimately dropped out of League One the following season. Even so, the 2013-4 season was a good one for Freeman. Almost anything that Boro’ did that was worth writing home about came from Luke’s left foot. He played 54 times – twice more than Chris Day. Eight goals, meanwhile, put him joint-second in our charts behind Francois Zoko.
It was so obvious that we needed to keep him. Why not? With his showing in League One, he’d blitz League Two and help us back up. That’s our theory, anyway. And we’d say that’s why we triggered a 12-month extension on his contract. It was a nice position to be in too; Boro’ coming close to needing to sell the winger during the January 2014 transfer window.
In the end, we sold him anyway; Bristol City stumping up a six-figure bid in summer 2014.
And that’s fine with us. Freeman had more than earned his chance to stay in League One. He’d seen other members of our all-conquering squad move on to bigger things. So, now this was his chance. He took it too; eventually reaching the top flight with Sheffield United. In some ways, we’re not too sure that we ever found a natural replacement for him in the years that followed. One or two came close. But who had that spark, elegance, or flair?
Well, Ilias Chair is one name. But there’s one loan we couldn’t make permanent.